KEY POINTS across East Asia—by Era

20th CENTURY 1900-1950

Imerialism, War, Revolution in East Asia


China in 1900: as noted in the last section, this arbitrary “turn of the century” date of 1900 marks nothing for China, except perhaps a rough half-point in a century of foreign aggression, internal challenges of population explosion and natural disasters, elite debate over the best way forward, and successive governments attempting to lead the country. As noted in the previous time period of 1750-1919, developments surrounding the Versailles Peace Treaty, ending WW I in 1919, marked the turning point for China, and for Japan.

To recap China's search for a new form of government amid events around 1900:

  • 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War – humiliation from China's defeat by Japan in struggle for dominance in Korea
  • 1898: 100 Days of Reform under the Kwangxu Emperor
    • Thwarted by Empress Dowager Zixi and conservatives
    • Boxer Rebellion, 1899-1901, against foreigners, including Qing (Manchus), manipulated by traditionalists to target Westerners and missionaries
    • Invasion, retaliation, and looting by combined Western forces; Old Summer Palace completely destroyed
    • Dynastic decline
  • 1912 Collapse of Qing Dynasty and the dynastic system – Republican government established
    • Sun Yat-sen led the forces calling for a republican government
    • Sun Yat-sen defers to warlord Yuan Shikai as president
    • The collapse of the dynastic system ushered in the turbulent "warlord period," however, with regional power centers competing for control.
  • 1919 Versailles Treaty terms at conclusion of WW I—Turning Point in China
    • During WW I (1914-1918), China sent workers to France to support the war efforts of the Allies. China also formally declared war on Japan in 1917.
    • The peace negotiations took place in Paris in 1918
      • U.S. President Woodrow Wilson proposed “14 Points” to be included in the peace, among them the right of self-determination for nations
      • China assumed that that Japanese rights on Chinese soil, in the province of Shandong, would be returned to Chinese sovereignty by the treaty.
    • The Allies instead awarded the rights to Germany.
    • When news of the treaty provisions reached China, a massive, popular demonstration took place on May 4, 1919 – protesting this continued rejection of China's rights on its own territory by the imperialist powers.
    • China's experienced a rise in “nationalism” expressed in developments that came to be known as the “May 4th Movement”
    • As China's predicament worsened, some intellectuals began to argue that these Confucian values were at the root of China's inability to repulse the military and political incursions of the West and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
    • The outpouring of popular outrage coalesced in a new nationalism with repeated cries for a "new culture" that would reinstate China to its former international position.
    • The way out of China's problems, many believed, was to adopt Western notions of equality and democracy and to abandon the Confucian approach which stressed hierarchy in relationships and obedience.
      • “Science” and “Democracy” became the code words of the day.
    • Marxism appealed to some Chinese as a Western theory that claimed to be “scientific” and ultimately “democratic,” while predicting the demise of imperialism
      • The Russian Revolution had occurred in 1917 during WW I
      • The new government soon (1924) renounced imperialist rights granted to the Tsarist regime
  • The Nationalist Party (Kuomintang/KMT) formed in Oct 1919
  • The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was formed in Shanghai in 1921.
    • Soviet advisors from the Comintern (Communist International, formed in 1919) were in China, advising both the KMT and the CCP. The two parties each had nascent armies, and the armies formed a “United Front” in 1926 to fight warlords in China
    • No strong central power existed after the fall of the dynasty in 1912; “warlords” controlled different provinces and parts of the country
    • Northern Expeditions of the KMT (1926-28) In 1928 the country was partially reunited under the army of Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) and the Nationalist Party (KMT), when the KMT army marches north from Guangdong province and re-establishes a capital in Nanjing in 1928. The KMT acts as the effective government of China from Nanjing from 1928-1937, when the country is invaded by Japan. This is sometimes called the Nationalist Revolution. The Nationalist government remained in power in Nanking until 1937 (1927-37 is known as the "Nanking Decade")
  • The Nationalists under Chiang see the CCP as rivals for political power. They first purge them in the cities In 1927, during the Northern Expedition, and continues to surround and attach CCP forces in southern China.
  • Long March of the CCP The CCP forces evacuate the southern areas and marches west and then north, ending its journey in the remote, mountainous region of Yenan in 1936. Mao Zedong emerges as the leader of the CCP movement during the Long March. Members of the Chinese Communist Party, pursued by the Nationalists in the 1930s, march from southern China to a remote region, Yenan, in northern China where they refine strategies for rural mobilization and revolution. This "Long March" takes place from 1934-1935.
    • Under Mao's leadership, the Chinese Communist Party established rural (as opposed to urban) vases and began mobilizing farmers.
    • Driven out of southern China by Chiang Kai-shek and Nationalist troops, the CCP made its headquarters in the remote mountainous area of Yenan in north China subsequent to the Long March of 1935-36.
    • The CCP gained strength by calling for united resistance against the Japanese, after the Japanese invasion of 1937. The CCP also experiments with land reform and other policies to ease the plight of the peasants.
  • Japan invades China in 1937, occupying much of the east coast of China and forcing the Nationalist government out of Nanking. The Japanese occupation of Nanjing is referred to as the “Rape of N . when it is forced by the Japanese invasion to move inland and ultimately establish its wartime capital in Chungking (Chongqing) in 1938, where it remains until 1945. Japan captures the capital city of Nanking in 1937 in a brutal battle and subsequent reign of terror known as the "Rape of Nanking."The KMT/Nationalist government of China evacuates to Chongqing, where it establishes its wartime capital. Schools, universities, and other entities move with it.
  • Civil War: After the end of WW II with the defeat of Japan in 1945, a civil war continued between the Nationalists and the Communists over the right to lead China's political and economic development and reestablish China's position in the world.
    • On October 1, 1949, the Chinese Communist Party, under the leadership of Mao Zedong, proclaimed the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC).
    • The Nationalist government evacuated to the island of Taiwan, where it established the Republic of China (ROC).
    • The rival governments continue to exist today as the People's Republic of China on the mainland and the Republic of China on Taiwan.


Japan in 1900: as noted in the last section, this arbitrary “turn of the century” date of 1900 marks nothing for Japan, except perhaps a rough half-point in its transformation under the Meiji Restoration: To review the previous time period and Japan's transformation under the Meiji reformers to meet the challenge of the encroachment of the imperialist West: As noted in the previous time period of 1750-1919, developments surrounding the Versailles Peace Treaty, ending WW I in 1919, marked the turning point for Japan….different but arguably equally consequential as it was for China.

Meiji Foreign Policy

  • Japan, which had isolated itself from international politics in the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), enters an international system of the late 1800s where imperialism dominates.
    • Japan rapidly becomes a major participant in this international system and seeks particular imperialist privileges with its East Asian neighbors, China and Korea.
    • Japan's successful transformation into a modern, military power is demonstrated first in 1894-95 and then in 1905-6.
    • In 1894-95 Japan fought a war against China over the control of Korea and gained Taiwan, Japan's first colony. (Sino-Japanese War) Japan defeats China, long the preeminent power in East Asia, in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5 over influence in the Korean peninsula.
    • In 1902, Japan signed an alliance with Great Britain, which signified a dramatic increase in international status
    • In 1904-5, Japan won a war against Russia, one of the major Western powers, in the process Japan defeats Russia, a major Western power, in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905-06 over rights in Manchuria and Korea.
  • The leaders of imperial Japan continued to address the issue of Japan's unequal status in the international order.
    • In 1894, more than forty years after Commodore Perry pried Japan open to the outside world, Japan finally succeeded in revising the unequal treaties so that it regained its legal parity with the Western powers.
    • Chinese reformers and revolutionaries base themselves in Japan;
    • Western nations take note of Japan's new power.
    • Japan makes Korea a “protectorate” of Japan
  • Japan expanded its empire, annexing Korea in 1910.
  • WWI and the Versailles Peace Treaty 1919
    • Japan was allied with the United States and Britain in World War I, and expected territorial gains at the Versailles peace conference in 1919.
    • German rights in Shandong Province are transferred to Japan, enraging China (May 4th Movement in China)
    • Japan's proposal to have a “racial equality” clause included in the Covenant of the League of Nations was denied by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson
    • The failure of the Japanese to get a clause on racial equality inserted into the covenant of the League of Nations was an insult
    • Japan again learned the lesson that the West regarded imperialism very differently if it was the imperialism of an Asian

Imperial Japan: Industrialization and Expansion (1900-1930s)

  • This period was a time of social and economic change within the constitutional monarchy established in 1890.
    • As the original architects of the Restoration died, the various branches of the government began competing for power.
    • An oligarchy bound closely by its members' shared conception of national purpose was replaced by an aggregate of interest groups — the Parliament, civil bureaucracy, military, and Imperial Household — all vying for the ear of the Emperor in whose name they administered the government.
  • Japanese industry expanded, both in light export industries like textiles, which were necessary to pay for the raw materials needed from abroad, and also in heavy industries like steel and shipbuilding.
  • Cities grew, as more Japanese moved from farming into jobs in factories and offices.
    • In the countryside larger landlords came to own more and more land, and
    • the number of poor tenants increased.
  • Always dependent on foreign trade, Japan was hard hit by the world depression that began in 1929.
    • The farmers who had grown the silk that was exported to the United States found no market for their product once the roaring twenties and the craze for silk stockings collapsed with the stock market crash.
    • Japan's dramatic economic growth slowed, and social problems increased, especially in the countryside.

Japan's Quest for Power and WW II in Asia

  • Inadequate political control over the Japanese military, economic strains, and the worldwide Depression of the 1930s set the stage for the rise of the military in Japan and the pursuit of Japanese imperialist interests in Asia.
  • The setbacks and insults from abroad, against a background of economic depression, sowed public frustration with the political leadership at home.
    • Increasingly, Japanese were persuaded by the militarists' contention that Japan's security lay in consolidating her access to markets and resources in Asia
    • Military units under the field commands in Manchuria grew impatient with the politicians' apparent inability to translate any of their military victories into political gains.
  • The impatience of field commanders in Manchuria finally showed in 1931, when they used a local provocation as an excuse to put all the Japanese territory in Manchuria under control of the military, creating a puppet state of “Manchukuo” or ‘country of the Manchus.”
    • The move presented Japan's civilian government at home with an accomplishment that it could not afford to ignore.
  • The military-industrial machine went into high gear, pulling Japan out of its depression as it continued to expand Japanese hegemony across the Far East.
    • Japan then Invades China in 1937,
      • Japan captures the capital city of Nanjing in 1937 in a brutal battle and subsequent reign of terror known as the "Rape of Nanjing."
      • The Chinese Nationalist government is forced to evacuate the capital of Nanking and fight against the Japanese from its wartime base of Chongqing, in western China.
      • Japan remained in China until its defeat at the conclusion of WW II in 1945.
    • As Holland, France, and Germany were enveloped in turmoil in Europe, Japan looked to replace them in Asia.
    • Japan invades French Indochina, including Vietnam, in 1940, setting up puppet governments to administer areas too vast to be controlled by the Japanese armies.
  • US and Japan: Conflict and Confrontation in WW II, 1941-1945:
    • Alarmed by Japan's increasing usurpation of Western prerogatives in the Far East — and disregard for the rights of the local populations — the United States delivered an ultimatum to Japan: steel and oil exports to Japan would be cut off unless Japan got out of China.
    • In the context of rapidly worsening relations, Japan decided to make a daring surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, where 90 percent of the U.S. Navy was deployed. The preemptive strike bought Japan time — it took the United States, many times its superior in industrial strength, a full year to gain the offensive on Japan.
    • When the Japanese attack the American fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the United States enters World War II and goes to war with Japan; the war ends when the U.S. drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9) in Japan in 1945 and Japan surrenders unconditionally to the Allied forces.
    • Japan's string of early successes — the Philippines, Hong Kong, British Malaya and Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies — left its navy scattered across the Pacific while its army was bogged down in China. When the United States recovered its forces lost in Pearl Harbor, its navy and army were able to conduct an "island-hopping strategy" of cutting off the Japanese commands one by one from their supply routes.
    • By 1945, the U.S. forces were close enough to launch damaging bombing attacks from nearby islands against Japan itself. Its cities devastated by fire bombing, its economy barely functioning and its people on the brink of starvation, the Japanese government still held out hope that with the assistance of the Russians, Swiss, or Swedes they would be able to negotiate an end to the war.
    • On August 6, 1945 the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
    • On August 8, the Russia declared war on Japan. This surprised Japanese leaders who were unaware of the secret agreement among Allies at Yalta,
    • On August 9, the United States had dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, the port city where Japan had first opened itself to Westerners.
    • Japan agreed to unconditional surrender and the emperor himself went on the radio to make the announcement of surrender to the Japanese people.
  • Japan's first attempt to enter the modern international system ends in failure.
  • During the course of the war Japan conquers other Asian nations, pursuing its own imperialist objectives and challenging Western powers for economic and military dominance in Asia. Hostility and unsettled issues resulting from the Japanese occupation remain in Japan's relations with Korea, China, and the countries of SE Asia.
  • Occupation begins…see next section


Japanese Colonial Rule (1910-1945)

  • Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945) was a contradictory experience for Koreans. On the one hand, Japanese colonialism was often quite harsh. For the first ten years Japan ruled directly through the military, and any Korean dissent was ruthlessly crushed. After a nationwide protest against Japanese colonialism that began on March 1, 1919, Japanese rule relaxed somewhat, allowing a limited degree of freedom of expression for Koreans.
    • Wartime mobilization of 1937-45 had reintroduced harsh measures to Japanese colonial rule, as Koreans were forced to work in Japanese factories and were sent as soldiers to the front. Tens of thousands of young Korean women were drafted as “Comfort Women” - in effect, sexual slaves - for Japanese soldiers.
    • In 1939, Koreans were even pressured by the colonial authorities to change their names to Japanese names, and more than 80 percent of the Koreans complied with the name-change ordinance.
  • Changes in Korea during the period of Japanese colonization: Despite the often oppressive and heavy-handed rule of the Japanese authorities, many recognizably modern aspects of Korean society emerged or grew considerably during the 35-year period of colonial rule. These included rapid urban growth, the expansion of commerce, and forms of mass culture such as radio and cinema, which became widespread for the first time. Industrial development also took place, partly encouraged by the Japanese colonial state, although primarily for the purposes of enriching Japan and fighting the wars in China and the Pacific rather than to benefit the Koreans themselves. Such uneven and distorted development left a mixed legacy for the peninsula after the colonial period ended.
  • By the time of the Japanese surrender in August 1945, Korea was the second-most industrialized nation in Asia after Japan itself.

Liberation, Division, and War

  • The Japanese surrender to the Allies on August 15, 1945, which ended World War II, led to a time of great confusion and turmoil in Korea.
  • The country was divided into zones of occupation by the victorious Americans and Soviets, and various individuals and organizations across the political spectrum from Communists to the far Right claimed to speak for an independent Korean government.
  • The Soviets and Americans failed to reach an agreement on a unified Korean government, and in 1948 two separate governments were established, each claiming to be the legitimate government of all Korea:
    • the Republic of Korea in Seoul, in the American zone, and
    • the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in Pyongyang, in the Soviet zone.
  • On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded the South. The Korean War drew in the Americans in support of South Korea and the Chinese in support of the North.
  • In July 1953, after three years of bloody fighting in which some three million Koreans, one million Chinese, and 54,000 Americans were killed, the Korean War ended in a truce with Korea still divided into two mutually antagonistic states, separated by a heavily fortified “De-Militarized Zone” (DMZ). Korea has remained divided ever since.


**Since the history of different parts of what we today call “Vietnam,” we are using a chart to convey developments in different regions over time:


1802-1945, Nguyen dynasty unites entire country

• established by Nguyen Anh, a southern prince, who fought and defeated the Tay Son to become the Gia-long Emperor; moved the capital to Hue in the center of the country.
• the second Nguyen ruler adopts a Chinese bureaucratic model, with scholar-officials chosen by examinations in the Confucian classics.

1862-1945, French control Vietnam, dividing it into three "pays" (countries)




Hanoi is capital of French Indochina, including Laos and Cambodia
• Romanized script, "Quoc ngu," developed in the 17th century by missionaries to write Vietnamese language, is made official; literacy rate increases


Tax revolt in Annam


• Phan Chu Trinh dies
• Phan Boi Chau on trial
• Student activism begins


Indochinese Communist Party formed by Ho Chi Minh to oppose colonial rule

1940-1945, Japanese Invasion and domination

1941: League for the Independence of Vietnam formed by Ho Chi Minh ("Viet Minh")


1945, Japanese defeat

Ho Chi Minh declares Vietnam independent;
Establishes government in the north

French return after Japanese defeat;
United States and Britain support the French


• French defeated at Dien Bien Phu;
• Ho Chi Minh takes control of the north;
• Geneva conference;
• Vietnam divided into North and South;
• elections proposed for 1956 but never held.

1956-1975, Vietnam War

1965: United States involvement in South Vietnam replaces that of the French
1968: Tet offensive

1975, United States and all foreign support leave Vietnam

• North Vietnam takes control of South Vietnam and establishes a unified country
• Name of Saigon changed to "Ho Chi Minh City," after Ho, who died in 1969 before the country united

1976, Socialist Republic of Vietnam proclaimed; capital Hanoi

• 1978 Vietnam invades and occupies Cambodia
• 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war
• 1985-89 Vietnam removes troops from Cambodia; 1991 formal end
• 1988 Beginning of economic and institutional reforms
• 1995 U.S. and Vietnam establish diplomatic relations
• 1996 Vietnam joins the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
• 2007 Vietnam joins World Trade Organization (WTO)